By karenmmartin on situated
Today, I continue the series of posts about Where the Action Is by Paul Dourish and look at the methods used in Social Computing and the implications of this for the evaluation of projects. Bet you can’t wait..
Last time on Mr. Watson social computing was defined as an approach to technology design that “attempts to incorporate understandings of the social world into interactive systems.” This has huge implications for the design of interactive systems. Paul Dourish writes that ”Advocates for socially based studies of work have found that ethnographic approaches can be used to uncover requirements for a system design through the detailed observation of the working setting. In contrast, more traditional approaches – based perhaps on functional specifications or on laboratory-based usability studies – tend to be disconnected from the lived detail of the work.” [p62]
Eniac Computer; From www.computermuseum.li,
Ethnographic methods are used by various strands of the social sciences including cultural and social anthropologists, and urban sociologists. Ethnography, according to Wikipedia, “provides an account of a particular culture, society, or community. The fieldwork usually involves spending a year or more in another society, living with the local people and learning about their ways of life. Ethnographers are participant observers. They take part in events they study because it helps with understanding local behavior and thought.” This approach is founded on the idea that a system’s properties cannot necessarily be understood when studied independently of each other. The most common ethnographic techniques are participant observation and interviews and on completion of this fieldwork, the ethnographer will use the collected information to interpret cultural diversity in the group studied.
Ethnomethodology is a branch of ethnography that originated with the work of Harold Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology. 1967). Dourish summarises ethnomethodology as the “study of commonsense methods by which people manage and organize their everyday behaviour.” [p74]
Ethnomethodology has a subtle but important distinction from other ethnographic methodologies. While some approaches to ethnography take the view that the social theories explaining the actions of individuals in society are invisible to the very individuals taking the action that gives rise to the theory (de Certeau’s view of the impossibility of understanding a city by being in it?), ethnomethodology says that people not only have their reasons for acting the way that they do, but that they also have an understanding of these reasons. In other words, “in the course of everyday life, everyone, always, is engaged in “practical sociological reasoning,” when, as part and parcel of what they do, they have to figure out what other people mean and in turn figure out how to act themselves in order to get things done.” [p75]
What this means (the other important thing about ethnomethodology) is that “the knowledge that people bring to bear in carrying out this practical sociological reasoning is no less valid than the theoretical models that professional sociologists might offer when they try to figure out what “society does.” We are all ethnographers, woohoo!
Paul Dourish and Graham Button use the term ‘Technomethodology’ to describe their approach to system design. They wanted to offer a model for development that reconciles human action and motivation (as recognised by ethnomethodology) with the technical processes found in conventional system design. The problem as they saw it was “that there are a number of systematic ways in which conventional system design undermines or removes the resources upon which human interactional behaviour is based” and one solution might be ”to address the problems in an equally systematic way, considering not just this design or that design but the basic models around which those designs are built.” They were also concerned to do this “in a way that preserves the distinctive character of ethnomethodological reasoning, rather than simply the ethnographical observations of particular working settings.” This approach argues that the relationship between technical design and social understandings should be made “at a foundational level, one that attempts to take sociological insights into the heart of the process and fabric of design.” [p87]
Univac-1; From www.computermuseum.li, Photo Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library and UNISYS
The two areas they focus on are accountability and abstraction. These two areas already feature in the design and development process of interactive systems, but as properties of a system have become isolated then this has led to various problems in considering, and developing and evaluating, a system in its entirety.
Dourish and Button define accountability as being the ability to make an action understandable to others and in particular that the “methods of understanding and making sense of action and the methods for engaging in it are the same methods.” The difficulty in incorporating this into system design is that “Users may have different goals in mind, different reasons for using the system and different ways in which they want to use it. In just the same way as they approach all other activities, they need to be able to decide what to do in order to get things done.” Dourish and Button believe that “In everyday interaction, as we have seen, ethnomethodology argues that accountability is the key feature that enables them to do this” that is “accountability lies in the reciprocality of action and understanding.” [p79] The benefit of achieving this is that interactive systems and technologies become more in tune with existing uses, behaviours and desires and more adaptable to future changes in behaviour and context.
Abstraction, for Dourish and Button is understood as hiding of the details of implementation. This is a fundamental concept of system design and does have benefits; “Hiding the implementation and dealing with something in terms of its abstraction allows us to isolate one piece of a system from all the rest, and so to adopt a modular approach to design that sees the system as an assembly of interoperating components, with all the advantages alluded to earlier.” [p82] However, it also results in an incompatibility with designing for accountability; ”The way that activities are organized makes their nature available to others; they can be seen and inspected, observed and reported. But this feature – the way that actions are organized – is exactly what is hidden by software abstractions.” [p83]
Process and Practice
Ethnographic methods offer HCI a way to distinguish between process and practice. The distinction between these can be seen by looking at the work environment where “processes are the formalized or regularized procedures by which work is conducted; procedures for authorizing payments, for ordering supplies, for repairing machines, or whatever. Work processes are captured and codified in rulebooks, manuals, recipes, and similar artifacts.” and practice is ”the informal but nonetheless routine mechanisms by which these processes are put into practice and managed in the face of everyday contingencies. Work practice is frequently informal and seemingly innocuous, but often provides the lubrication that prevents formalized processes from seizing up.” [p62-3]
Practice develops in response to process and is essential for the purposes of ‘getting things done’. No amount of technology can replace the ‘approximation, invention, improvisation, and ad-hoc-ery‘ of practice. “Practice is always dynamic, arising as a way to mediate between processes and the circumstances in which they are enacted. The reason to study practice is to understand how this dynamic mediation takes place.” This is especially and increasingly important in the design of interactive systems when the setting and use of the system cannot be predicted by the designer beforehand. [I have a paper by Mark Burry on his work with the Segrada Familia which is relevant here. I’ll write about it soon]
The same disconnection from the direct engagement and experience of people which can be seen in the design of interactive systems, turns up again when considering the evaluation of these technologies, “Usability evaluations are generally concerned with the detail of interactional features of software systems, are carried out in laboratories in controlled conditions, and measure performance on artificial tasks across a range of subjects; … From an ethnographic perspective, these sorts of questions are meaningless when decontextualized and examined in the sterile confines of a laboratory.” [p62] as Dourish concludes, “the only way to come to a good understanding of the effectiveness of a software system is to understand how it features as part and parcel of a set of working practices, as embodied by a group of people actually using the system to do real work in real working settings.”
Fig. 1. HCI Test Station; Fig. 2. HCI Test Subject
Obviously this critique can be extended to projects that explore topics other than work, and six years later it seems to be causing real problems and great discussion within certain fields of HCI judging by the number of papers at CHI this year dealing with the subject of design or evaluation of ubiquitous, and in particular urban, computing technologies.
Implications for Design
Since the publication of Where the Action Is, user-centred and participatory design techniques have become more common in the design of interactive systems, however I wonder how far designers who use these techniques consider the context within which they are carried out. Taking the ethnomethodological approach, it seems that the context in which the design is carried out will effect the final outcome. For example, the location, tools and skills of a design team would influence the range of systems that it is possible for a particular design team to envision.
I’m not sure how much work has been done in this area but the first half of Hillier and Newman’s paper ‘How is Design Possible?’ seems relevant.
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* Posted on: Mon, Aug 13 2007 10:54 AM
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